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Voice of Terror

Anwar al-Awlaki has emerged as the most persuasive supporter of jihad for Muslims in the West.


In the winter of 2004, a treatise called da’wat al-muqawamah al-Islamiyyah al-alamiyya (The Call of Global Islamic Resistance) first appeared on jihadi forums. The 1,600-page document, written by al Qaeda’s arch-strategist Abu Musab al-Suri, called for a radical restructuring of global jihadism. Suri, having observed that the post-9/11 era was distinctly uncharitable toward organized and hierarchical jihadi groups, wanted to transform al Qaeda into a diffuse international movement connected mainly through Islamic solidarity and ideology.

The terrorist network, Suri had already written in 2000, "is not an organization.… It is a call, a reference, a methodology." Accordingly, he now recommended that al Qaeda focus on projecting its ideas and solutions around the globe. By encouraging this new, decentralized version of al Qaeda, Suri hoped to see the creation of numerous "self-starter" individuals and terrorist cells with no organizational connections to the group. These self-starters, he hoped, would be just as eager to kill as any well-trained terrorist and would also be better protected from detection by enemy security services.

For Suri’s strategy to work in the West, where there are a significant number of people potentially receptive to al Qaeda’s message but nonetheless uninformed about its worldview, it required an effective interpreter. That role is now being successfully filled by the Yemeni-American preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, currently living in hiding in Yemen. More effectively than any of his English-speaking predecessors, Awlaki has given ideas originally formulated for an Arab and South Asian audience immediate and culturally specific relevance to Western Muslims, inspiring terrorists such as Nidal Malik Hasan, Faisal Shahzad, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

Counterterrorism analysts have debated Awlaki’s significance in the world of global jihadism since he rose to prominence in late 2009. In November, Gregory Johnsen argued in the New York Times that his importance has been greatly exaggerated and that pursuing Awlaki only distracts from some of the truly dangerous and more directly operational leaders of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Thomas Hegghammer, on the other hand, recently made the case in Foreign Policy that Awlaki plays a direct role in organizing and executing attacks on Western targets.

But both of these arguments miss Awlaki’s true significance: his ability to radicalize those, particularly in the West, who may never come into contact with him.

This fact has been recognized by senior officials within the U.S. counterterrorism community. Howard Gambrill Clark, a former senior intelligence analyst for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and author of Revolt Against Al-Qa’ida, told me that by 2008 he had informed his superiors that Awlaki’s greatest threat "was not of any operational nature, but instead the radicalizing thrust of his lectures and absolutist ideology."

But Clark bemoaned the failure of U.S. authorities to understand quickly enough the changes in al Qaeda’s strategy, saying that "the FBI and DHS analytic branch and division chiefs failed to properly assess" the new nature of the threat posed by figures such as Awlaki.

AQAP’s efforts to carry out large-scale attacks against the United States are not the sole extent of its mission — nor even the most potentially dangerous. The organization also produces the English-language Inspire magazine, an online publication thought to be edited by Awlaki’s propagandist sidekick, the Saudi-American Samir Khan. Awlaki has authored articles for the first two and fourth issues, and Hegghammer lays out strong circumstantial evidence suggesting that Awlaki wrote for the third issue under the title of AQAP’s "Head of Foreign Operations." This issue also includes a list of almost all the incarcerated jihadists who have been specifically linked to Awlaki — many of whom were apparently included in the place of higher profile al Qaeda figures, such as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

As its name suggests, Inspire‘s main focus is to encourage Awlaki’s global audience to "wage their individual jihad" against the West. The contributors explain that it is not only the scale of the attack that matters, but its impact on society and its potential to inspire yet more Muslims to follow this example. It is no coincidence that the second issue, which focuses particularly on self-starters, reproduces a section from Suri’s book devoted specifically to "the school of individual jihad and small cells."

This concept has been a recurring feature of Awlaki’s thought. As he put it in a 2009 post on his now defunct blog: "Today the world turns upside down when one Muslim performs a martyrdom operation. Can you imagine what would happen if that is done by seven hundred Muslims on the same day?!"

Along with ideological and strategic advice, Inspire also includes detailed tactical suggestions. For example, the October issue suggests attaching butcher blades to the front of a pick-up truck, near the headlights so that "the blades strike your targets at the torso level or higher," and driving through large crowds of people. Disturbingly, these low-tech and decentralized methods have found a number of willing acolytes among Muslims living in the West, even before Inspire introduced Awlaki to a broader audience.

In May, Roshonara Choudhry, a former British student and online Awlaki supporter, stabbed British Labour MP Stephen Timms repeatedly in the abdomen in revenge for his support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. According to reports, before the attempted killing she cut off ties with her friends, told no one about her plans, and acted entirely on her own — precisely what Inspire would later instruct readers to do. In her subsequent interview with the police, she referred to Awlaki as her main inspiration. Choudhry’s actions have not gone unnoticed, and the latest issue of Inspire pays homage to her. Inspire lauds her as a shining example of what Western Muslims should aspire to, celebrating how she "rushed to her obligation of jihad and answered the call of Allah."

Just last month, an FBI affidavit concerning the ongoing trial of Baltimore resident Antonio Martinez, who is charged with attempting murder and the use of a weapon of mass destruction outside a Maryland military recruitment center, revealed the young convert’s admiration for his "beloved Sheikh." Martinez expressed the encouragement he drew from Awlaki to an undercover FBI agent and also posted on his Facebook account, "I love Sheikh Anwar al-Awalki [sic] for the sake of ALLAH. A real insperation [sic] for the Ummah, I don’t care if he is on the terrorist list!"

Like Choudhry, Martinez envisioned a plan that had no connections to any other individuals or organizations, telling the FBI agent whom he thought was his co-conspirator: "I guess I’m gonna have to do it myself.… we’re just gonna have to do it ourselves.… I’m okay with that."

Awlaki’s call for 700 attacks a day may be over-ambitious, but even a fraction of this number could have devastating effects. No one needs any reminder of what the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber have done to international air travel, or what an increase in Muslim attacks in Europe could do to rising communal tensions.

Johnsen notes that Awlaki has "little standing in the Arab world." But this misses the point: Arab extremists have their inspirational and captivating ideologues, from Osama bin Laden to Abu Yahya al-Libi. But until recently, such a figure did not exist in the English-speaking world. While Arab ideologues may cite Arab figures obscure to Westerners, such as the medieval Muslim cleric Ibn Taymiyya, Awlaki’s rhetoric is sprinkled with references ranging from Michael Jackson to Charles Dickens.

Unlike his Arab counterparts, Awlaki — who spent his early childhood in the United States and returned there for college — can speak directly to Western Muslims as someone who was once much like them. In his April 2010 talk, "A Call to Jihad," likely recorded in the mountains of Yemen’s Shabwa province, he reminded listeners that he too lived in the United States and had tried through nonviolent means to resist the U.S. government’s supposed attempts to "extinguish the light of Allah." This approach, he claims, yielded no results, thus forcing him to take more extreme measures.

"To the Muslims in America I have this to say: How can your conscience allow you to live in peaceful co-existence with the nation that is responsible for the tyranny and crimes committed against your own brothers and sisters?" he asked his audience. "How can you have your loyalty to a government that is leading the war against Islam and Muslims"

Awlaki also skillfully frames the supposedly hostile actions of the U.S. government against its citizens, including non-jihadi Muslims, as a confirmation of what he claims the Quran has already warned about — that non-Muslims and their apostate allies are hellbent on destroying Islam.

"Muslims of the West, take heed and learn from the lessons of history: There are ominous clouds gathering in your horizon," Awlaki says in the same lecture. "Yesterday, America was a land of slavery, segregation, lynching, and [the] Ku Klux Klan, and tomorrow it will be a land of religious discrimination and concentration camps … the war between Muslims and the West escalating."

In the Homeric oral tradition, some of the most important words spoken by either God or mortal are often described as "winged" — once they are uttered, they are beyond recall. This is an apt adjective for Awlaki’s contribution to the trajectory of global jihad, which is significant and enduring. The inspiration that he has already provided to a number of terrorists is proof of his deadly skill in framing jihadi ideology for a Western audience. Dead or alive, the Internet age will ensure that his words will continue to flutter to receptive audiences across the globe.

Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens is a P.h.D candidate and research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College London.